The Toughest Decision You’ll Have to Make


You go to the doctor’s. You’ve a nagging pain in your stomach. It’s a pain you’ve never had before. Worrying, because you’ve reached the age where you know your body pretty well. The age where most of your aches and pains are old friends: you know how long they’ll stay – and you know how to get rid of them.

“How bad is it?” the doctor asks.

“Yeah,” you nod. “Pretty bad.”

“Conscious of it through the day?”

“Absolutely.”

“Keep you awake at night?”

“Two or three times a week, yes.”

The doctor examines you. Sits you down in the chair. Puts on his ‘time to deliver bad news’ face.

“You’re right,” he says. “The pain is serious. And the bad news is, it’s not going to get better. It’s going to get worse. A lot worse. You’re going to worry more, have more sleepless nights.”

You gulp. In truth this was the news you expected. But hearing someone else spell it out makes it worse.

“What can we do?” you ask.

“We can do one of two things. We can operate. There’s no risk, but it’ll be painful. You’ll be in pain for maybe a week. After that, you’ll be fine. Better than fine. Better than you were before the pain started.”

“What’s the other option?”

The doctor shrugs. “Just carry on as you are. The pain will get worse and worse. It’s your choice…”

So what would you do? Which choice would you make?

Without a shred of doubt, everyone reading this blog would make the same decision. “It’s a no-brainer, doc. How quickly can we schedule the operation?”

And yet when the vast majority of people are faced with a business decision that is an exact parallel, they choose to continue with the pain.

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“What’s the matter, sweetheart? It’s two o’ clock in the morning.”

“Can’t sleep. I’ve been lying awake since you turned the light out.”

“You’re not worrying about work again are you?”

“I’m always worrying about work. That is, I’m always worrying about Brian.”

Your wife sits up. Turns the light on. “Why don’t you just get rid of him?”

“I don’t know. It’s difficult. I mean…”

What you really mean, is that the decision to get rid of someone is painful. And you’re right, it is. But what’s even more painful is keeping an employee who’s not right. It affects you, it affects your whole team. Chances are, you’re not the only one awake at two in the morning…

I’m fascinated by how many of my TAB members shy away from the pain of firing someone they know is wrong – especially when they know that the pain of keeping them on is ultimately greater. I’m equally fascinated by how members can bluntly say “fire them” when it’s someone else’s problem – and hesitate when it’s their own.

By now I’ve seen plenty of problems brought to TAB meetings, and this is the one which causes the most anguish. Of course you don’t want to sack someone. But it comes with the territory. Leadership is a lonely place.

Do you remember that breakfast? The one where you pushed your food round your plate as you sat in the motorway service station? The one where you finally decided: ‘It can’t go on like this. I’m going to start my own business?’

You started a journey that day – and one day it had to lead to Brian and the problem you now have. It’s one that every leader has to face at some time.

Let’s go back to the doctor’s surgery. What did you say? “It’s a no-brainer, doc. How quickly can we schedule the operation?” If you want to put it more eloquently, take the advice of the man who was briefly CEO of Scotland: Macbeth.

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well/It were done quickly.

As another former CEO, ‘Junior’ Soprano, said, ‘That’s what being a boss is. You steer the ship the best way you know how. Sometimes it’s smooth, sometimes you hit the rocks.’

And sometimes – sadly – you need to leave a crew member behind. Yes, you’ll do it as gently, as tactfully and as constructively as you can because you’re a good person. But the decision has to be made. And you have to make it.

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3 comments

  1. Chris Wilson · March 3, 2016

    Yep, good words Ed. Your people are your best assets, but bad ones can quickly spread and cause all manner of problems.

  2. simonjhudson · March 4, 2016

    Straight between eyes; not a chance to move.
    Spot on

  3. chris ingoe · March 4, 2016

    Evolve or die. Survival of the fittest. Never a truer word spoken Ed.

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